Morrow County waits months for state money to help with contaminated drinking water

In the meantime, the county and businesses have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the problem

By: - July 22, 2022 6:00 am

Ana Piñeyro, a communicable disease specialist, and Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty outside the county health department’s office before going out to test taps. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

It’s been more than two-and-a-half months since Mayra Colin found out the water coming from her kitchen tap in Boardman contained high levels of nitrates, which can cause serious health issues.

She’s still waiting for a permanent fix.

“We’re on the list to have a filter installed in the future,” she said in a text message on Monday. “We have been provided with bottled water and more recently, water jugs weekly.”

For three months, Morrow County officials have been testing the tap water of residents who rely on wells, and more than a month ago, the county commission declared an emergency over the contamination. The county is paying for bottled water deliveries, and a consortium of area businesses is paying for reverse-osmosis filters for homeowners in the area.

The state has provided some help – but no direct money, county officials said. 

Jim Doherty, chair of the Morrow County Commission, wants the state to contribute $4 million to expand nitrate testing in the county, pay for reverse osmosis filter systems and help fund the digging of new wells. 

That’s how much the state recently gave to Klamath County to subsidize the cost of new wells for homes where they’ve gone dry.

Regional state lawmakers told Doherty to wait until a meeting of the Legislature’s Emergency Board in September when county officials can request funds.

The contaminated water comes from the Lower Umatilla Basin, used by residents in Umatilla and Morrow County. It has become increasingly contaminated with nitrates during the last 30 years from farm fertilizers, animal manure and wastewater from the Port of Morrow and area food processors. Water that contains more than 10 parts of nitrates per million is unsafe to drink, according to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. 

Colin’s water tested more than three times that. 

Mayra Colin and her mom at their home in Boardman’s West Glen neighborhood. Her tap water tested three times the safe limit for nitrate established by the EPA. She lives in the house with her parents and three sons. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

About 1,300 households rely on private wells in Morrow County. So far, the county has tested nearly 270 wells for nitrates, with nearly half showing high levels, according to Ana Piñeyro, communicable disease specialist at the Morrow County Health Department. The highest so far has tested more than six times the EPA limit. Many people who rely on wells in Morrow County are Latino, officials at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said. 

They’ve largely been ignored by state and local lawmakers and officials – and agencies. State officials do not regulate water quality in private wells. 

None of the lawmakers recommending the county wait until September has visited residents with polluted drinking water, the Capital Chronicle found. Besides a virtual town hall convened by state Sen. Ron Wyden on July 6 – where Boardman residents pressed him on what the federal government could do to help with the area’s water contamination issue – no lawmaker has organized a community meeting or attended one of at least four community meetings with residents. None has visited either of the two emergency drinking water distribution sites open Tuesdays and Thursdays in Morrow County, either.

At least two state lawmakers have met with leaders at the Port of Morrow, with area food processors and large area farm owners. And in June, the Eastern Oregon Economic Summit, sponsored by the Port of Morrow, included a regional water tour through Morrow and Umatilla Counties, visiting farm and industrial sites. Morrow and Umatilla County’s regional leaders and state Sen. Jeff Merkley attended the summit. 

The Oregon Health Authority has sent out fliers in English and Spanish to raise awareness about nitrates, testing opportunities and where residents can collect safe water. 

Oregon’s Emergency Management Office also has helped – by contributing two truckloads of bottled water, plastic jugs, temporary bottled water delivery and two temporary staffers to help with distribution. One was bilingual and worked on outreach to the Spanish-speaking community. 

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Declaring an emergency

In January, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the Port of Morrow in Boardman nearly $1.3 million for years of violating its wastewater permit and allowing hundreds of tons of excess nitrogen onto area farmlands above the already contaminated basin. 

An investigation by the Capital Chronicle revealed the Port of Morrow had been violating its permit for nearly two decades and that the Department of Environmental Quality exercised little regulatory authority over the port and over area groundwater contamination, allowing nitrate levels to worsen for decades. 

The news of the port’s violations spurred Doherty to begin testing residents’ wells in April, which showed many had contaminated water. He also learned for the first time that many Latino residents had been buying bottled water for decades. More than one-third of the population in Morrow County is Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. 

Gerald Boullesteer (right) shows County Commissioner Jim Doherty (left) how he uses pool testing strips to test the water in the home of his recently deceased father-in-law Don Drayton. Test of the filtered water revealed below 10 ppm nitrate, while a test of unfiltered water was between about 13 and 20 ppm. Boullesteer uses the filtered water even to brush his teeth. (Kathy Aney/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

On June 9, the Morrow County Commission declared an emergency over the contamination. The commissioners hoped this would bring in state and federal financial aid to pay for more testing, reverse osmosis filters and new wells. Since April, the county has paid about $40 to test each well, with the work being done by the county health department, the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action and several area businesses associated with the port. Doherty said the commission allocated $250,000 for outreach, testing and temporary water delivery. The commission also allocated $100,000 toward emergency actions such as setting up sites where residents can pick up bottled water.

Food processing and agriculture businesses affiliated with the Port of Morrow are reimbursing the county for up to 350 water filters that cost $220 each. The county is paying for the installation of those filters for residents who need assistance, as well as the weekly water deliveries currently going to at least 80 households while they wait for filters, Doherty said.

There are 15 filters at the county Health Department, 50 coming by Friday and 50 more ordered, according to the county’s emergency manager, Paul Gray.

A longer term solution depends on financial assistance from the state, Gray said. 

“Shallow wells seem to be most contaminated. Deeper wells don’t seem to have the nitrates. If we can fund new wells to be dug for underprivileged residents that would be helpful.” 

More than 40% of people in Morrow County live below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With just 20% of the private wells tested, Gray said he needs to increase awareness of the nitrate issue. 

Several people recently told him that the nitrate issue was nonsense while he was distributing water at a school in Boardman.

“Telling me, ‘We don’t need our wells tested, we’ve been drinking this for 50 years,’ and they leave,” he said. “It’s not going to cost them anything to get their well tested, and even if we put a filter in it’ll be free. Let us test, we’ll get it fixed.”

Doherty said the county has spent nearly $500,000 since April on the problem if the cost of public health and emergency management staff, as well as fuel for doing home visits, is included.

Residents are angry that the state hasn’t helped fund fixes.

Some are “screaming bloody murder that their dollars shouldn’t go to this effort,” Doherty said. 

Many want the state to step in, and local industries to continue to pay, he said.

Ana Piñeyro (left) talks with a resident in West Glen about nitrate contamination and asks to sample his tap water. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

They blame regulators for allowing the nitrate problem to worsen over the decades and say industrial farms, food processors and the Port of Morrow are responsible for portions of the nitrate pollution, he said.

Doherty has talked with Gov. Kate Brown and her water policy advisor, Courtney Crowell. A spokesperson for Brown said in an email that the governor “is committed to making state resources available to provide immediate relief and assistance to water users throughout the area.”

Crowell said Brown is coordinating with state agencies to set up a long-term outreach and water testing program and “working on developing a program and resources to address the drinking water situation in both Morrow and Umatilla counties,” Crowell said. 

Regional leaders largely quiet on issue

In the weeks following the emergency declaration, Doherty sought help from state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner. Doherty said Smith, who is on the Emergency Board, recommended that Morrow County request funding from the board through the Environmental Quality Department or the Oregon Health Authority. The board meets Sept. 21 through 23, and Doherty is preparing a request. 

Smith did not respond to multiple emails, calls or a text message from the Capital Chronicle requesting comment. 

Gray said the Oregon Health Authority is trying to get funding to expand the testing of private wells throughout the state, provided the Oregon Legislature agrees during its session next year.

“There’s just no guarantee that money will happen,” Gray said. 

Both the Morrow and Umatilla county commissions asked Wyden and Merkley for $2.7 million from Congress for testing and filters. Their aides have met with Morrow County leaders at least once. Molly Prescott, a press secretary for Merkley, said both senators want to prioritize funding for the region’s drinking water in next year’s congressional spending. 

“I expect to have news to report on this coming out of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, of which Senator Merkley is Chair, before August,” she wrote in an email. The counties could receive up to $1.6 million, and solely for testing because federal agencies are not allowed to use congressional money on filtration for private wells, Prescott said.

In Wyden’s virtual town hall, Boardman residents asked what he could do to help with the nitrate issue. He said he was working to pass the WASH Act, which would provide federal grants for private well testing in areas with contaminated drinking water. This bill, if passed, could take years to go into effect. 

After the emergency was declared, Doherty met with an aide for U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, who represents northeast Oregon, but no action came from it. Knox McCutchen, communications director for Bentz office, wrote in an email: “We are eager to help in any way we can, and we are currently in the process of identifying what federal assistance is available.”

Rep. Bobby Levy, R-Echo, has met with Morrow County Commissioners, but her legislative aide, ​​Whitley Schiller said they have no plans for action.

Morrow County officials also spoke with state Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena.

But Hansell, also on the Emergency Board, told the Capital Chronicle no one from Morrow County had asked him to pursue state money. 

Doherty said he didn’t ask Hansell for money, but had hoped the senator would do more to find and direct state resources to the county in the aftermath of the emergency declaration.

Hansell has not met with anyone with contaminated well water in Morrow or Umatilla counties. Nor has he attended any community meetings on the issues. 

“I haven’t been invited to anything at this point,” he said.

Hansell is in touch with Crowell, Brown’s water advisor. “I’ve told them if there’s anything I can do to help or to move the dial I will,” he said.

Hansell wrote to Brown requesting money for a postdoctoral student from Oregon State University to collect more data on where nitrate contamination is worst and at what levels. 

“I know that’s long range and long term,” Hansell said.  “I stand ready to go to bat through the emergency board.”

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Read more of our reporting on water contamination in Morrow County:

Powerful port pollutes water for years with little state action

Contamination worsened as DEQ went easy on Port of Morrow

Troubled by inaction, Morrow County commissioner makes safe water a top issue

Morrow County declares emergency over groundwater nitrate pollution

Port of Morrow continued to pollute after January fine, now faces $2.1 million fine, state says

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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